Slavery, Abolitionism and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship: Reflections about Ethical Deflections

So how is it that most Christian academic biblical scholars never see anything that Jesus does as wrong or evil? The answer, of course, is that most Christian biblical scholars, whether in secular academia or in seminaries, still see Jesus as divine, and not as a human being with faults.

For Further Reading: Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011)

See Also:

In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy

The End of Accreditation? Not So Fast!!

What's Not so Secular about Introductions to the Bible?

By Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
November 2011

There are many reasons why authors write books. In my case, some of the books I write result from growing weary of claims repeated so often that they become accepted as common truths despite their demonstrable falsity. Such is the case with my most recent book, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011). Therein, I seek to deconstruct the myth that reliance on the Bible was primarily responsible for the abolition of slavery in Western Civilization.

Part of my evidence consists of detailed studies of how abolitionists used and abused scripture to make their case. Equally important is my critique of most of modern biblical scholarship insofar as it still functions as an apology for biblical slavery.

Within a broader philosophical and ethical framework, my basic premise is that if slavery is not regarded as wrong, then little else can be. And if slavery is regarded as inexcusably wrong, then biblical ethics stands or falls on its attitude toward slavery. As such, this book is a critique of the broader idea that the Bible should be the basis of modern ethics.

Jesus, a perfect example of imperfect ethics

My project actually began with a puzzling experience. If one reads almost any book on Christian ethics written by academic biblical scholars, one finds something extremely peculiar: Jesus never does anything wrong. Rudolf Schnackenburg’s The Moral Teaching of the New Testament represents the view one usually encounters:

The Early Church, and with it, Christianity, throughout the centuries was profoundly convinced that the greatest of Jesus’ achievements in the moral sphere was the promulgation of the chief commandment of love of God and one’s neighbour. The message of Christian agape, the model and highest expression of which is the mission of the Son of God to redeem the sinful human race, brought something new into the world, an idea and reality so vast and incomprehensible as to be the highest revelation of God, and quite inconceivable apart from revelation.1

The rest of the book finds nothing but praise for Jesus, and not a whit of criticism.

Perhaps this unrelenting praise of Jesus’ ethics can be expected because Schnackenburg was a Catholic priest with an openly Christian commitment. But if we look at the work of Richard Horsley, who taught at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, a public secular university, there is not much difference. For example, the worst thing about Jesus in Horsley’s Jesus and the Spiral of Violence is this assessment:

It would be difficult to claim that Jesus was a pacifist. But he actively opposed violence, particularly institutionalized oppressive and repressive violence, and its effects on a subject people. Jesus was apparently a revolutionary but not a violent political revolutionary… Jesus preached and catalyzed a social revolution… “Love your enemies” turns out to be not the apolitical pacific stance of one who stands above the turmoil of his day, nor a sober counsel of nonresistance to evil or oppression, but a revolutionary principle. It was a social revolutionary principle insofar as the love of enemies would transform local social-economic relations.2

For Horsley, even when this new revolutionary principle is threatening to the ruling social order, that threat is a good thing because it will help liberate people from oppression. On the other hand, we also are told by Horsley that early Christians could not be too vocal in opposing slavery because that would have been too revolutionary.

This uniformly benign picture of Jesus’ ethics is peculiar because when historians study Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar, they note the good and the bad aspects of their actions. Even when academic biblical scholars study Moses or David, they might note their flaws.3 From a purely historical viewpoint, Jesus is a man and not a god. He should have flaws.

So how is it that most Christian academic biblical scholars never see anything that Jesus does as wrong or evil? The answer, of course, is that most Christian biblical scholars, whether in secular academia or in seminaries, still see Jesus as divine, and not as a human being with faults.

Such scholars are still studying Jesus through the confessional lenses of Nicea or Chalcedon rather than through a historical approach we would use with other human beings. In fact, Luke Timothy Johnson, a well known New Testament scholar at Emory University, remarks:

We can go further and state that the basic “historical” claims of the Nicene Creed are well supported: “He was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried”…in essence, what the most universally used Christian creed asserts about the human person Jesus is historically verifiable.4

Although Johnson realizes that many of the supernatural claims about Jesus cannot be validated historically, he adds that “[t]he only real validation for the claim that Christ is what the creed claims him to be, that is, light from light, true God from true God, is to be found in the quality of life demonstrated by those who make this confession.”5

Johnson, of course, assumes that this “quality of life” based on imitating Jesus must be completely good. So, for the most part, Christian biblical scholars may be willing to give up on the historicity of most events reported in the New Testament, but unchaining themselves from the notion of Jesus’ ethical purity seems too revolutionary. Christolatry still reigns in New Testament scholarship.

Slavery by any other name

But if Jesus is a special case, one would not know it from books treating the wider scope of biblical ethics. In general, there are few books by biblical scholars that denounce biblical ethics. Some may denounce specific actions God is portrayed as commanding or allowing, but few denounce the biblical god in general. This is acknowledged by R. Norman Whybray:

The dark side of God is a subject that has received astonishingly little attention from Old Testament scholars. The standard Old Testament theologies, monographs, about the Old Testament doctrine of God, articles about particular passages, even commentaries are almost silent on the matter…even those that make reference to them have tended to play down such passages or sought to explain them away with a variety of arguments.6

It will no longer do to protest that we cannot judge the negative ethical aspects of biblical cultures by modern standards because the same would apply when judging any positive aspects of Jesus and the Bible. What standards are scholars using, after all, when saying that the Bible and Jesus bear ethically positive or superior features?

In a previous book, The End of Biblical Studies, I showed how the main subfields of biblical scholarship are permeated with religionist assumptions that present themselves as objective descriptive scholarship.7 Such fields include archaeology, history, textual criticism, aesthetics, and translation. Examining those fields shows how biblical scholarship is preoccupied with retaining the Bible’s relevance when its own findings paradoxically show the opposite.

The same can be said of the study of biblical ethics, which often represents itself as an academic endeavor that is no less descriptive than the fields I have examined in The End of Biblical Studies. For example, John Barton approves of the leadership of Eckart Otto, a premier biblical ethicist today, “in aiming primarily to present a descriptive, historical account of ethical beliefs and practices in ancient Israel as evidenced in the Old Testament…”8 Similarly, Richard B. Hays, of Duke University, remarks that “[t]he first task of New Testament ethics is to describe the content of the individual writings of the New Testament canon.”9

But despite the thoroughly benign manner in which biblical ethics are often represented, the Bible endorses horrific ideas and practices. One of these horrific practices is slavery, one of the most tragic and vicious institutions ever devised by humanity. For about 1900 of the last 2000 years of Christian history, it was self-described Christians who kept slavery, in some form or another, a viable institution. Yet, many modern historians and biblical scholars still claim that the Bible was a main factor in abolition.

In contrast, the main point of my book is that reliance on biblical authority was instrumental in promoting and maintaining slavery far longer than might have been the case if we had followed many pre-Christian or non-Christian notions of freedom and anti-slavery sentiments.

The obverse side of my argument is that abolition of slavery was mainly the result of abandoning crucial biblical principles and interpretations rather than following them. Briefly, my main argument has the following interrelated elements:

#1 Biblical scholarship generally functions as an apology for biblical views now deemed unethical, and slavery is a primary example.

#2 Reliance on biblical ethics generally has delayed the abolition of slavery and any progress toward freedom in the manner the latter is currently conceived.

#3 Any credit to the Bible for ethical advances concerning freedom is usually the result of arbitrary exegesis of the Bible, reinterpretation, and the abandonment of biblical principles.

As it pertains to element #1, the myth that biblical ethics were the key to explaining the eventual triumph of abolition is now partly sustained by perpetuating the illusion that there are “new developments” that will help us see that the Bible, and especially the New Testament, was not in any way supportive of slavery.

Some of these more recent hermeneutic developments go by the name of “socio-rhetorical criticism.” Its principal practitioners include Ben Witherington and Richard Horsley.10 Richard Horsley even describes rhetorical criticism as being “recently rediscovered.”11

It is not so much that there is no place for socio-rhetorical criticism in our field, but the manner in which some scholars are applying socio-rhetorical criticism is clearly apologetic. Methodologically, Witherington’s socio-rhetorical readings of Philemon and Colossians, in particular, attempt to cut and paste statements about rhetoric from disparate classical sources (e.g., Aristotle, Quintilian, Cicero) in order to create the impression of some unified and parallel socio-rhetorical strategy being applied by Paul.

In any case, socio-rhetorical readings of Philemon, Colossians 3:18-4:1, 1 Corinthians 7:21, among other NT passages, are some of the main subjects of my critique. I show that such socio-rhetorical readings of the New Testament, especially those offered by Witherington and Horsley, not only misrepresent and/or misread many of the classical sources, but their techniques are applied so arbitrarily and idiosyncratically that one can prove almost anything by using the same techniques. Socio-rhetorical criticism thus becomes another form of theological sophistry under the name of historical-critical scholarship.

Insofar as #2 is concerned, most ethical judgments about the past, whether positive or negative, derive from our current standards. In the case of the Bible, we can just as well judge it by the system of ethics that is, for the most part, enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has an arguable position as the consensus of most nations today. Article 4 states: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”12 Judged by those United Nations standards, Jesus and the entire Bible fail quite consistently on the issue of slavery.

As it pertains to element #3, I critique three principal interpretive strategies used by Christian ethicists:

  1. Representativism
  2. Trajectorialism
  3. Reinterpretation

For my purposes, “representativism” affirms that a particular biblical ethical view is “representative” while others (usually bad ones, like slavery and genocide) are unrepresentative. Thus, we often hear about how the “core” or “true” teachings of Jesus or the Bible are really liberatory.

Trajectorialism grants that certain undesirable biblical practices may exist in the Bible but they are nonetheless a step in the right direction or represent advances. Thus, scholars may admit that the Bible was not very vocal in its fight against slavery, but it had the seeds of liberation that later bore fruit.

By far the most common strategy to explain slavery in the Bible is reinterpretation. Reinterpretation allows the original meaning of the text to be erased or changed to fit a later or modern context.

On a more philosophical level, I devote a major portion of a chapter to showing that reinterpretation is ultimately an unethical practice itself if one values any original authorial intent. Reinterpretation ultimately means disregarding any recoverable “original” meaning, and so it is tantamount to rejection of the Bible itself. The fact that the Bible has to be reinterpreted to make it ethically palatable to modern people is itself a measure of how ethically unpalatable the Bible is to modern sensibilities.

Unshackling ourselves from the Bible

In truth, the main point of my book was expressed, and much more eloquently, in the nineteenth century by Frederick Douglass, who became more of a secular humanist toward the end of his life:

Now that slavery is no more, and the multitude are claiming the credit of its abolition, though but a score of years have passed since the same multitude were claiming an exactly opposite credit, it is difficult to realize that an abolitionist was ever an object of popular scorn and reproach in this country.13

I also don’t think that my book, or any book, can claim to be the last word on the enormous and complex subject of slavery. However, I think this book will make it clear how much modern biblical scholarship is still complicit in mitigating and excusing biblical authors from their endorsement, promotion, or tolerance of one of the most horrific institutions ever devised by human beings.

Judged by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which expresses the widest consensus available on ethics, the Bible does fail miserably. The Bible is part of a world whose ethics and values are best left in the past. If the modern world values human freedom, then it should completely unshackle itself from using the Bible as any sort of ethical or social authority.


*This essay consists of adapted extracts from my book, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).

1 Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Moral Teaching of the New Testament (trans. J.Holland-Smith and W.J. O’Hara; London: Burns & Oates, 1975), pp. 90-91.

2 Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), p. 326.

3 Baruch Halpern, David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001). For moral evaluations of many Old Testament figures, see Mary E. Mills, Biblical Morality: Moral Perspectives in Old Testament Narratives (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001). For some of the philosophical problems that attend moral evaluations of literature, see Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

4 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), pp. 126-27.

5 Johnson, The Real Jesus, p. 168.

6 R. Norman Whybray, “‘Shall not the judge of the earth do what is just?’ God’s Oppression of the Innocent in the Old Testament,” in David Penchansky and Paul L. Redditt (eds.), Shall Not the Judge of the Earth do What is Right? Studies in the Nature of God in Tribute to James L. Crenshaw (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2000), pp. 1-19 (2). See also R. Norman Whybray, “The Immorality of God: Reflections on Some Passages in Genesis, Job, Exodus and Numbers,” JSOT 21 (1996), pp. 89-120. For a recent attempt to mitigate these negative images of God, see Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009). Examples of scholars who do not attempt to mitigate biblical slavery include David P. Wright, God’s Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Code of Hammurabi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (repr., Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006 [2002]); Catherine Hezser, Jewish Slavery in Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Sylvester A. Johnson, The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity: Race, Heathens, and the People of God, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

7 Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007). In Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Viloence (Amherst,NY: Prometheus, 2005) I also explore how modern scholarship has attempted to mitigate violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

8 John Barton, Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003), p. 173. See also Eckart Otto, Theologische Ethik des Alten Testaments (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1994); Otto, “Of Aims and Methods in Hebrew Bible Ethics,” in Douglas A. Knight (ed.), Ethics and Politics in the Bible (Semeia, 66; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1995), pp. 161-71. See also David J.A. Clines, “Ethics as Deconstruction, and, The Ethics of Deconstruction,” in John W. Rogerson, Margaret Davies, and M. Daniel Carroll R. (eds.), The Bible in Ethics: The Second Sheffield Colloquium (JSOTSup, 207; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), pp. 77-106.

9 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperOne, 1996), p. 13. Douglas A. Knight (“Old Testament Ethics,” Christian Century 99 [1982], pp. 55-59 [58]) says: “biblical ethics is primarily a descriptive discipline.” Per contra Bruce C. Birch (Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament Ethics and Christian Life [Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991], p. 25) says: “…nor do I believe that ethics should be primarily descriptive.”

10 Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament (2 vols.; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic Press, 2010); The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007); “Was Paul a Pro-Slavery Chauvinist? Making Sense of Paul’s Seemingly Mixed Moral Messages," Bible Review 20 (April 2004), pp. 8, 44. Richard A. Horsley, 1 Corinthians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998); Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993); “The Slave Systems of Classical Antiquity and their Reluctant Recognition by Modern Scholars,” in Allen D. Callahan, Richard A. Horsley, and Abraham Smith (eds.), Slavery in Text and Interpretation (Semeia, 83/84; Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1998), pp. 19-66.

11 Richard Horsley, “Paul and Slavery: A Critical Alternative to Recent Readings,” in Callahan, Horsley, and Smith (eds.), Slavery in Text and Interpretation, p. 157.

12 United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Online: See also Amartya Sen, Inequality Reexamined, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). For a study of inequality in ancient Israel, see the collection of essays in Saul Olyan, Social Inequality in the World of the Text: The Significance of Ritual and Social Distinctions in the Hebrew Bible (Journal of Ancient Judaism Supplements, 4; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011).

13 Frederick Douglass, “Great Britain’s Example is High, Noble, and Grand…6 August, 1885,” in John W. Blassingame, and John R. McKivigan (eds.), The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One—Speeches, Debates and Interviews (5 vols.; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979–92), 5:203.

Comments (16)

Anyone reading this book should also read "Proslavery," by Larry E. Tise. It's his Ph.D. thesis, basically, in which he studies the background of about 300 people who wrote some 500 antebellum defenses of slavery in the U.S. One of his criteria for inclusion in his study: The writer had to be a clergyman. He says the clergy wrote almost all defenses of slavery. He found some interesting things (Northern clergy wrote the majority of defenses up until about 1840, for example). If you read a cross-section of the defenses, they pretty much invoke religion and the Bible, as slavery is considered to be God's institution. They routinely damned the abolitionists as blasphemers, even atheists, for denying God's will.
Also, the legal basis for slavery, issued by British courts in the 17th century, was based on the Bible: Christians could lawfully hold Africans as slaves because they were pagans (Butts vs. Penny, 1677; Gelly vs. Cleve, 1693). The word "slave" itself comes from Slav, as Christian crusaders for centuries waged wars against pagan Slavs in northern Europe and sold captives into forced labor, leading to Slav and forced labor becoming synonymous. Christians did nothing to Africans that they did not first do to European pagans.

#1 - TheVirginian - 11/16/2011 - 07:06

"Judged by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which expresses the widest consensus available on ethics, the Bible does fail miserably."

Considering China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia, potentially three of the world's worst regimes, currently occupy seats on the United Nations Human Rights Counsel, it's difficult to fathom taking your comment seriously.

#2 - John Towers - 11/23/2011 - 09:41

Mr. Towers’ comment is historically uninformed on a number of levels.

First, my comments pertain to the principles enunciated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

So, the fact that Saudi Arabia and other countries with objectionable human rights records belong to the United Nations Human Rights Council does not invalidate those principles enunciated in 1948.

Second, the Human Rights Council had nothing to do with the formulation of the Universal Declaration because that Council was created in 2006. See:

Furthermore, the Declaration was formulated in the aftermath of World War II, and passed with a vote of 48-0 (not counting abstentions). That is my justification for deeming it as expressing a consensus of the world at the time, and even today. Saudi Arabia and a few other nations abstained in 1948, but that does not invalidate my claim that the Declaration does express the widest consensus on ethics available today.

For more on the background of the Universal Declaration, see:

#3 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 11/23/2011 - 20:45

The Bible is not condemning slavery in the same way as the Bible is not condemning capital punishment (e.g. on a cross). These are just social structures in which the human authors expressed their belives.

Similarly, the Bible does not call for the Health Care system available for all. Not the proper epoch...

#4 - Zygmunt - 11/24/2011 - 16:54

"If slaves should escape from their masters and take refuge with you, you must not hand them over to their masters. Let them live among you in any town they choose, and do not oppress them. " (Deu 23:15,16).

The land of Israel was a refuge for fugitive slaves...

If someone had read this law no one would have enacted century and century later that law:

#5 - domenico - 01/11/2012 - 09:41

RE: Domenico's citation of Deut. 23:15-16

Domenico is not quite accurate in his portrayal of this passage.
I discuss this passage in some detail in my book (Slavery, Abolitionism...pp. 88-90).

Pro-slavery advocates were very aware of this passage, and they were able to explain it in various ways, including by citing Philemon as a case where Paul sent back a fugitive slave. The NT, in that case, superseded OT law, according to this defense.

Deut. 23:15-16, more significantly, still assumes slavery is perfectly legitimate.

Otherwise, its idea of a refuge does not differ much from what we can find elsewhere in the ANE. Raymond Westbrook observes, “Kings had a traditional discretion to grant or refuse asylum to fugitives. As between kings of equal status, they were under no legal obligation to return fugitives upon demand, unless it was specifically provided for by treaty.”

SOURCE: Raymond Westbrook, "International Law in the Amarna Age," in Raymond Cohen and Raymond Westbrook (eds.), Amarna Diplomacy: The Beginnings of International Relations (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), p 36.

#6 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 01/11/2012 - 17:10

I don't think that Westbrook is referring to slaves; he writes about 'political refugees'.
Anyway, even if Westbrook is referring to them he writes: "As between kings of equal status, they were under no legal obligation to return fugitives upon demand, unless it was specifically provided for by treaty, which was frequently the case".

So in the ANE the norm were treaties that allowed the return.
Even if there were no treaties Westbrook continues:
"Of course, it might be considered an unfriendly act to harbor a fugitive, in which case a request for extradition would be granted as a favor".

Who faces a war or to break off diplomatic relations for slaves?

Israel with the law of Deut. 23:15-16 was an exception. And above all an exception that did not depend on the wishes of the political.
In the Deuteronomy was God who ordered not to return the fugitives; the kings of Israel could not make treaties with colleagues who say the opposite. The others kings in the ANE could change their opinion in this matter; the kings of Israel not.

So I confirm: if someone had read this law nobody would have acted the Fugitive Slave Act.

Prof. Avalos seems to give much credit to pro-slavery advocates but of course there were also many anti-slavery advocates. Are he sayng that pro-slavery advocates were better interpreters of the Bible?

#7 - domenico - 01/12/2012 - 07:49

I was also wondering if "the widest consensus available on ethics" today is, as Prof. Avalos claims, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted with 48 votes or the 'Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam' signed by the countries of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

#8 - domenico - 01/12/2012 - 07:58

Dear Domenico,
RE: "Are he sayng that pro-slavery advocates were better interpreters of the Bible?"

If you read my book, you will see that I argue precisely that abolitionist exegesis was generally no better, and was often worse, than that of pro-slavery exegetes.

I also argue that pro-slavery advocates had such a strong case that many important abolitionists eventually shifted to more humanitarian, legal, and economic arguments, rather than biblical ones, to make their case (e.g., Wilberforce, Douglass).

In this sense, I fully support J. Albert Harrill’s position voiced in his article on “Slavery” in the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols.; Nashville:Abingdon Press, 2006-2009):

“In the late 19th century conflict over the Bible and slavery, American abolitionists, many of whom were Christian evangelicals, ransacked Scripture for texts condemning slavery, but found few. As a consequence, they developed new hermeneutical strategies to read the Bible to counter the ‘plain sense’ (literalist) reading of proslavery theology… Most embarrassing for today’s readers of the Bible, the proslavery clergymen were holding the more defensible position from the perspective of historical criticism. The passages in the Bible about slavery signal the acceptance of an ancient model of civilization for which patriarchy and subjugation were not merely desirable but essential.”

Source: J. Albert Harrill, “Slavery,” NIDB 5:307. See also Harrill, “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate,” Religion and American Culture 10 (2000), pp. 149-86.

#9 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 01/12/2012 - 22:27

Dear Domenico:
Re: “So I confirm: if someone had read this law nobody would have acted the Fugitive Slave Act.”

Not at all. For example, Moses Stuart, one of the most distinguished American biblical scholars of the nineteenth century, read and addressed this passage in his book, Conscience and the Constitution... (Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1850), pp. 30-31.

He noted that this passage applied only to foreign slaves who escaped to Israel. But it would not apply to domestic slaves in ancient Israel who fled from their masters.

By analogy, Stuart reasoned that Deut. 23:15-16 would not apply to slaves who fled from the South to the North in America because both regions were part of a single Christian nation, and were not foreign nations to each other.

#10 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 01/12/2012 - 22:55

Dear Domenico,
RE: “I don't think that Westbrook is referring to slaves.”

Even if so, the fact remains that Deut. 23:15-16 may be dealing with foreign slaves, and not domestic slaves, who flee.

On the other hand, certain laws in ancient Greece did afford protection to fugitive slaves, either domestic or foreign, who fled to temples.

For example, a law passed by the Messenians around 91 BCE stated that “slaves are allowed to flee to the Temple for refuge.”

Source: Thomas Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery (London: Croom Helm, 1981), pp. 195-96.

Slaves could flee to temples if the master was cruel. If the slave owner demanded the slave’s return from the temple, “[t]he priest is to make a ruling about any runaways who come from our own city… If he does not hand him over, the slave may go free from the master who owns him.”

Source: Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery, p. 196. See also Justus H. Lipsius, Das attische Recht und Rechtsverfahren mit Benutzung des attischen Processes (2 vols.; Leipzig; O.R. Reisland, 1905), II, pp. 642-43.

However, biblical law states that a master can beat a slave nearly to death (Exodus 21: 20-21) and the slave remains enslaved. Similarly, 1 Peter 2:18 instructs slaves to serve even cruel masters rather than to flee. By that standard, fugitives in some parts of ancient Greece were better off.

#11 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 01/12/2012 - 23:42

Dr. Avalos, thanks for the answers.
I do not understand your shifting from the ANE tho the Greco-Roman world but it's okay anyway.

he confirms my observations. A city, a political power, granted refuge for the slaves. Next years the same city could change this law (the same for Roman examples). In Israel there were an immutable God's law. In Greace (or Rome) the slave had to reach a temple or a shrine; in Israel the salvation was at the border.

Moses Stuart:
if we have to rely on "one of the most distinguished American biblical scholars of the nineteenth century" on the interpretation of Deut. 23:15-16 we could also rely in him when he writes:
"the treatment of slaves among the heathen was far more severe and rigorous, than it could lawfully be under Mosaic law. The heathen master possessed the power of life and death, of scourging, or imprisoning, or putting to excessive toil, even to any extent that he please. Not so among the Hebrews. Humanity pleaded, then, for the protection of the fugitive."

"proslavery clergymen were holding the more defensible position from the perspective of historical criticism"?
Absolutly not. If there was a real 'plain sense’ (literalist) reading" of the Bible, literalist exegetes would have to say that if a slave was converted to Christianity at that point he had to be freed after seven years as Hebrew slaves were.

#12 - domenico - 01/13/2012 - 11:34

"There are more than 30 million slaves in the world today, more than at any other point in human history."

In the trans-Atlantic slave trade were deported 12 million slaves in 400 years.

If we should to judge the results of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in an interconnected world, much more controllable than the world of centuries ago, from this data we should write of a failure.

#13 - domenico - 01/13/2012 - 11:44

Dear Domenico,
RE: "There are more than 30 million slaves in the world today, more than at any other point in human history...In the trans-Atlantic slave trade were deported 12 million slaves in 400 years.”

According to David Eltis and David Richardson (Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010], p. 19), the figure of 12.5 million relates only to the Transantlantic “embarkations” for the years between 1501 and 1867.

There were many other slaves held domestically in Africa and Asia during that time, in addition to others in the New World.

The growth of slavery in Africa and the New World between 1501 and 1867 was very closely tied to the growth and spread of Christianity to the New World and Africa. Most slaveholders in the New World were self-described Christians.

Your figure of 30 million for the number of current slaves also has to account for the huge population growth between 1867 and today. The world population reached 1 billion around 1800 according to many demographers.

Today, you have a world population of over 7 billion people.

So, if we were to use your logic and your own numbers, then we can say that the UN has been a success because about 6.97 billion (7 billion – 30 million) are free, and that is more free people than ever in history.

From the statistics we do have available in Ezra 2:64-65, we can also reasonably calculate that the proportion (apx. 14%, not counting singers) of slaves in Ezra’s community was very similar to what you found in the Greco-Roman world in some periods (and America in 1790).

I do have more detailed comparative calculations in my book based on the numbers provided by Orlando Patterson (Slavery and Social Death, p. 354) and Rodney Stark (For the Glory of God, p. 321).

#14 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 01/13/2012 - 15:49

Dear Domenico,
RE: “Next years the same city could change this law (the same for Roman examples). In Israel there were an immutable God's law. In Greace (or Rome) the slave had to reach a temple or a shrine; in Israel the salvation was at the border.”

First, you continue to ignore that domestic slaves were not necessarily included in the fugitive law of Deut. 23:15-16, and so how is a foreign slave having to reach the border of Israel to gain freedom better than reaching the dozens of temples that might have been available nearby in ancient Greece?

Deuteronomy, after all, only allowed one temple for the whole country, while Greece allowed many more.

Second, I am not sure even you would say that the laws in the Old Testament are “immutable.” For example, do you think this law in Leviticus 25:44-46 (RSV) should be immutable?

44] As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you.
[45] You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property.
[46] You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness.

If you do regard this as “immutable,” then, by this logic, the enslavement of Israel’s neighbors should continue to be permitted.

Indeed, you seem to overlook that this idea of the “immutability” of such slave laws given by God is also part of the logic that allowed slavery to continue in Christian nations as long as it did.

So, please answer this question: Is Leviticus 25:44-46 “immutable” and so still valid today?

#15 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 01/13/2012 - 16:21

I agree with you that slavery is a horrible evil.
I think it is covered by Jesus' second commandment:
38 “This is the great and foremost commandment.
39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’
40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22: 37-40)
Obviously, the supporters of slavery in the U.S. took liberties with their interpretation of this passage.
I think slavery among the Israelites in Old Testament times was more like indentured servitude:
Exodus 21:2-6
2 When you purchase a Hebrew slave, he is to serve you for six years, but in the seventh year he shall be given his freedom without cost.
3 If he comes into service alone, he shall leave alone; if he comes with a wife, his wife shall leave with him.
4 But if his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall remain the master's property and the man shall leave alone.
5 If, however, the slave declares, 'I am devoted to my master and my wife and children; I will not go free,'
6 His master shall bring him to God and there, at the door or doorpost, he shall pierce his ear with an awl, thus keeping him as his slave forever.
Of course, the Judaic law didn't apply to non-Hebrews, who had no status under the law.
My interpretation of my own Bible reading is that, by our standards, wives and children were slaves (property) of the husband or father. In the passage above, if the wife came with the male slave, she belonged to him. If she belonged to the master before her marriage, she continued to belong to the master. Her own freedom was not even in the realm of possibility. One of the reasons it was so important that a woman bear children was that her status in society was based on her being the mother of male members of the family. A barren woman, even one loved by her husband, had no status in the tribe.
But it was the master who bore the moral responsibility in all these situations.
Jesus, in his teaching, placed the emphasis on the husband's responsibility toward his wife. (Matthew 19:8-11)
Among at least some of the writers of the New Testament, slavery was pretty much an irrelevant issue, since they expected an imminent return of Christ and end of the current world order. The important thing was that both the slave and the master behave with Christian love toward each other. Such was Paul's advice to Onesimus and Philemon.
Just as in our own times, it is probably not fair to judge the teacher based on the behavior of the people.
During proslavery years in the U.S., the political focus should have been on whether slavery was constitutional rather than whether it was moral.

#16 - Martha - 01/24/2012 - 21:01

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